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Charles Krauthammer on The Syrian Vote and the President’s Speech

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Charles Krauthammer interview Audio


HH: As the Syria crisis continues to deepen, we continue to analyze it. We will bring you any updates as they occur. I begin the coverage today with Charles Krauthammer, whose Washington Post column today excoriated the President as being deeply unserious. Charles, welcome, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.

CK: I’m happy to be here.

HH: Did the President say anything in Russia today that changed your opinion that you argued in the Post column today?

CK: No. He can speak for 50 minutes and leave you with the impression that nothing happened. It’s sort of where I was today.

HH: This is occurring on the 70th anniversary to the day, Charles, of Winston Churchill speaking at Harvard in the middle of the War in 1943. I’d like to play a minute and a half of that for you, and get your comment on it, and then go back to your column. Here’s Churchill at Harvard 70 years ago today:

WC: Twice in my lifetime the long arm of destiny has reached across the oceans and involved the entire life and manhood of the United States in a deadly struggle. There was no use in saying “We don’t want it; we won’t have it; our forebears left Europe to avoid these quarrels; we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old. “There was no use in that. The long arm reaches out remorselessly, and every one’s existence, environment, and outlook undergo a swift and irresistible change. What is the explanation, Mr. President, of these strange facts, and what are the deep laws to which they respond? I will offer you one explanation – there are others, but one will suffice. The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes. If this has been proved in the past, as it has been, it will become indisputable in the future. The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility. Although we live in a period so tumultuous that little can be predicted, we may be quite sure that this process will be intensified with every forward step the United States make in wealth and in power. Not only are the responsibilities of this great Republic growing, but the world over which they range is itself contracting in relation to our powers of locomotion at a positively alarming rate.

HH: At an alarming rate, Charles Krauthammer, and this is really the argument of the interventionists, I think. It’s my argument. I think it’s Kristol’s argument. The United States cannot afford a no vote here. Isn’t that what Churchill was saying, the United States can’t escape its responsibilities?

CK: Well, there is a guy, I have respect for their point of view here, for the more interventionist view. But there is a difference of scale between the Second World War and the Syrian Civil War. That was an existential struggle where the future of civilization was surely in the balance. It could be that Syria will develop into a World War I-like world conflict, but that is fairly unlikely right now. It is not a conflict in which the existence of ways of life is at stake. So I’m willing to grant that, and I’m willing there are reasons for staying out, and I think they’ve been articulated by the opponents. The reason I’m for staying out is because this President doesn’t know what he’s doing. And he, unless he says in public that he is, if you’re going to use the military, you use it for effect. And if the effect is to alter the balance and the trajectory of the civil war so that Assad falls, and therefore Hezbollah, Iran and others are set back, then I am all in favor of this. But I need to hear it from the President, and I don’t hear it. I certainly don’t hear it from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It isn’t that America has to act here. The world is absolutely passive. The whole notion of the international community is a ridiculous fiction that liberals have invented. There is no international community. There’s the United States and their allies, and all the rest of the world have different national interests, and don’t give a damn about stuff that we give a damn about, like chemical weapons, international norms and international decency. The question is will we act in this affair in our own national interest, because we perceive it that way? If we do, then we have to do something serious. So my argument is simply about seriousness. If Obama wants to do something real, I’m all for it. It looks as if he wants to do nothing, surely judging him from the last two years. That’s been the message of everything he’s done, including his astonishing zigzag on Saturday when he tossed it all over to Congress.

HH: Agreed. Now Michael Moynihan, obviously it isn’t World War II, yet. Michael Moynihan has made the argument this is the equivalent of the Spanish Civil War. It is the prelude. It is the opening act. It’s the overture. And the part of your column that struck me is when you were talking about how deterrence works in the Middle East. And Israel hasn’t been attacked by Syria in 30 years, because they know what would follow, like Eisenhower said to Korea, surely as day follows night, destruction. And so the question is, if the President doesn’t act, and he blames Congress, because Congress did not vote for this, and he walks away, how does, I’m looking at the picture of Khamenei on the new Foreign Affairs article. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read this, yet, very troubling. How do they perceive us? And I think they perceive us much worse, that they may act much more aggressively, right down to acts of terrorism against us via their agents of influence, like the one they were planning in Mexico last year to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador. I think we invite escalation.

CK: I would argue that if we do a pinprick, it’s even worse. If Assad walks out of the smoke and the ashes three days later, vindicated, laughing at the United States, showing how the U.S., the muscle-bound giant, is too afraid to do anything serious, that’s worse. What do you think was the result, the psychological effect of the equivalent, which was 1998, two embassies were blown to bits in Africa, al Qaeda takes responsibility. Bill Clinton comes back from the Vineyard, this is during the Lewinsky affair, and he lobs a few Cruise missiles at, what, a million and a half dollars each, into empty, $10 dollar tents in Afghanistan. That energized al Qaeda. That made the U.S. look absolutely feckless. If we had done nothing, you could say well, you know, we’re preparing for something else, we’re going to do something serious. But to make the big stand, to give the big speeches he did from the Oval Office, we’re not going to stand around to do what is essentially nothing is worse. I’d rather keep my powder dry and let them know we’re watching them, maybe given that there’ll be a more serious argument within the Congress, and in the administration, of doing something serious about this. So I don’t take the conclusion that lobbing a missile or two into an empty building, and you and I know they’re empty, because they’ve been given the target list.

HH: Yes.

CK: Is it going to achieve anything, not just militarily, but anything psychologically?

HH: That is a very good argument. My response would be that if the President does that, exactly what happens, but that Congress will, he won’t mind that. He does not mind that, so Congress can’t allow him that opportunity to scale back and actually be more feckless than you talk about, because if he walks out of the ashes, then Congress will be able to bash him for doing that, for allowing that to happen. But if he doesn’t, if he acts with a pinprick after Congress doesn’t back him up, or if he does nothing at all, I just think these guys go crazy. Let me ask you this. This is very important. Is there anything he can say on Tuesday night, Charles Krauthammer, that would change your mind? What would you have to hear him say?

CK: I would like to hear him say what he said to Graham and to McCain in the Oval Office when they met last week, which is yes, I think, well, I do want to alter the balance, we’re going to hit him pretty hard, we’re going to send trainers right down to the rebels, we’re going to send them serious weapons, anti-tank and anti-aircraft. We know the rebels are problematic, but…and this is a completely different and longer argument, and I’m afraid we’re not going to have enough time. I think if you have to choose the evils here, it is clear that the rebels are far the lesser of two evils than the Shiite-Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis, with Russia behind it.

HH: Yes, thank you.

CK: Infinitely less dangerous.

HH: Thank you.

CK: I mean, that, I think, is the weakest of all the arguments, oh, they’re all bad guys. We supported Stalin against Hitler, and it was the right choice, the second worst man on Earth against the first. Those are the choices that statesmen have to make. So I’m not, I mean, if he got up there, the President, on Tuesday night, and said I think we need to alter the course of this war, we’re not going to do it by joining it on the ground, but we can do it with the weapons, the training, the bombing that we will do, if he told me they were going to tell me, he wouldn’t say it, but if they ended up with this attack, let’s say a three day attack, wiping out the six main air bases around Damascus, as the Southern Commander of the rebels is quoted as saying to David Ignatius in the Post today, the Washington Post, if we used our air power to make them inoperable, and we can do it, you hit the planes, you hit the helicopters and you hit the runways, you hit the fuel depots and you hit the command structure, and you do that, that will be a terrible blow to the regime. He does that, he sends trainers, he sends arms, then I’m on board. That’s what I want to hear.

HH: Charles Krauthammer, easily the most influential of conservative commentators, I’ll bet you he reads this transcript very closely. Thank you, Charles.

End of interview.


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